While living in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, my future husband and I were browsing through an antiques store and saw a cast-iron trivet that we liked. Neither of us had ever owned an iron trivet, or had a particular use for one, but this one had at least three qualities to recommend it. First, since we were both studying history and historic preservation, we liked old things. Second, since we were new to the state of Pennsylvania, its Pennsylvania German folk art style charmed us. And third, as starving graduate students, it was pretty much the only thing in the store that was cheap enough for us to buy. Manufactured in the mid-1900s, it was a commonly reproduced design and it didn’t have a high value.
Over the years, I continued to buy iron trivets at the occasional yard sale or antiques store, and also purchased a reference book that described their history and the companies that made them. I even bought a few on eBay. I ended up with a couple of dozen trivets that wouldn’t impress a serious collector, but they still charm me quite a bit. I love the folk art patterns, the stars and whirls and geometric designs, the flowers and birds, the solid heft of the cast iron. Some of the trivets are painted with bright colors, and evoke the vibrancy of Pennsylvania German art forms such as hex signs and fraktur. (The photo below shows my collection.)
When I began volunteering at the National Heritage Museum, I was happy to discover that the museum’s collection includes some wonderful trivets. Many trivets made in the 1800s and 1900s were not only decorative, but also featured commemorative designs that honored famous people (such as George Washington and Jenny Lind) or organizations such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows. Several of the Museum’s trivets feature a combination of Masonic symbols with traditional shapes and forms. The example above, manufactured by the John Wright Company of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, includes the Masonic square, compasses, and “G,” perhaps the most common Masonic symbol, representing reason and faith. On this trivet, the symbols appear within a horseshoe shape, a common trivet motif that signifies good luck. Manufacturers of cast-iron trivets would often reuse popular shapes and patterns – such as the horseshoe – while changing a small part of the design to meet a new need, such as to create a commemorative piece for a particular group or audience. These mid-1900s trivets were often more popular as decoration rather than as functional pieces and were made with short legs to facilitate being hung on a wall. My grandparents had several trivets that I remember hanging in their summer cottage.
Another cast-iron trivet in the Museum’s collection (seen at right) also features a square, compasses, and “G,” along with an archway and a five-pointed star. This one most likely dates to the late 1800s, based on the length and shape of its legs, its cast mark, and its weight. Older trivets often had longer legs (more than one inch), depending on their intended use, and although often ornamental, were made primarily to hold hot objects such as pots and clothes irons. Some, like this example, were shaped specifically for a clothes iron: wide at one end and tapering to a point at the other.
The fact that foundries regularly produced and marketed Masonic trivets suggests the popularity and influence of Freemasonry in American culture over many decades. Trivets can also be found bearing the symbols of other fraternal and social organizations including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
I still have my own two dozen iron trivets in a box in the garage. I stopped collecting years ago because I didn’t have a place to display them. I also began to realize the folly of collecting something that weighs as much as … um … a box full of cast iron. But I still find them to be a fascinating bit of Americana.
Rob Roy Kelly and James Elwood, A Collector’s Guide to Trivets & Stands. Lima, OH: Golden Era Publications, 1990.
Top: Masonic Trivet, ca. 1950, John Wright Company, Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum collection, Special Acquisitions Fund, 75.24.
Middle: Cathy Breitkreutz's collection of trivets. Photograph by Cathy Breitkreutz.
Bottom: Masonic Trivet, 1880-1900, American, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of Harriet G. Ward, 88.5.